Everyone dumbfounded

Agatha Christie:
The Mysterious Affair at Styles
Introduction by John Curran
HarperCollins 2013 (1920)

“It is always wise to suspect everybody until you can prove logically, and to your own satisfaction, that they are innocent.” — Hercule Poirot, Chapter 8

Styles Court, Essex, July 1917. Captain Hastings, invalided from the front, is given a month’s sick leave from his convalescent home. He is invited by an old friend John Cavendish to stay at a country house a few miles from the sea, not guessing that it will be more eventful than he anticipated: in less than a fortnight after Hastings’ arrival at Styles Court Cavendish’s mother is fatally poisoned by strychnine.

Thus begins Christie’s first published novel, introducing retired Belgian detective Hercule Poirot to the world and initiating what would be known as the ‘cosy’ mystery. As Dr John Curran explains in his introduction here is the stereotypical mystery, set in a country mansion or village and involving a cast of extended family members, friends and acquaintances, often ending with a gathering in a drawing room for the revelation of ‘who done it’.

As the brusque Evelyn Howard puts it at the very beginning, “Like a good story myself. Lots of nonsense written, though. Criminal discovered in the last chapter. Everyone dumbfounded. Real crime–you’d know it at once!” As an arch metafictional device this is as good as it gets.

Motivation — opportunity — means. Though Christie doesn’t spell it out these key issues are what this novel (first published in the US in 1920) lays out. Hastings, who narrates the story, plays Dr Watson to Poirot’s Holmes, leaping to erroneous conclusions while missing out on clues but also fulfilling a crucial role in the final denouement.

Emily Cavendish, the second wife of the recently deceased owner of Styles, has recently remarried, to the chagrin of her stepson John, who trained as a barrister, his wife Mary, and Lawrence, a qualified doctor. Also in the household is Emily’s protégée Cynthia Murdoch, who dispenses medicines at a nearby hospital, and Evelyn Howard, described as a general factotum. Dr Bauerstein, an international expert on toxicology, wanders into the picture occasionally; but the real fly in the ointment is the rather strange figure of Alfred Inglethorp, regarded as a golddigger for having tied the knot with widow Emily.

And then Emily dies in dreadful paroxyms in front of the family, relatives who though shocked don’t seem that upset. Here’s where Poirot is invited in to investigate by Hastings. Who would want the new Mrs Inglethorp out of the way, and exactly how could they accomplish it? As with other examples of this genre there are red herrings in shoals, along with plot twists and late evidence.

Though this was the author’s first ever publication she’d written other unpublished pieces before, and with a sister and mother both writing as well it’s clear that writing was in her blood. While the ups and downs do strain credulity at times — a contemporary review in the Times Literary Supplement called it “almost too ingenious” it’s a great intellectual puzzle, compounded by her professional familiarity with medicines and poisons and her acquaintance with Belgian emigrés.

This edition includes, as an appendix, the original unpublished version of the chapter in which Poirot reveals who perpetrated the murder; she was persuaded to shift the resolution from a courtroom to a London drawing room — to the betterment of the novel.

27 thoughts on “Everyone dumbfounded

  1. I’m glad you enjoyed this–I loved all the twists and turns and of course, the whodunit which took me entirely by surprise the first time around.

    As you say, writing was in her blood–I only found out after reading her autobio that she hadn’t had any formal education–her mother was inclined to suddenly pick up certain fads so while her sister went to school, she was never sent.

    I’m planning a re-read this year as well–later in the year!

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    1. As with most crime fiction I read — in fact fiction in general — I had, like an old-fashioned detective, a notebook to hand for jotting down timelines, relationships, possible motives and so on. In fact, all the usual “who, what, when, where” questions! I’ve learnt to always suspect everybody…

      But what Christie carefully stage manages is the How and the Why, which always stumps me, even after the final reveal. Definitely a contrast to the Westmacott novel I read just before and an indication of her versatility.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. She takes me by surprise with the ‘who’ as well–-much of the time. And there are clues planted all over the place in most cases which one only realises later or sometimes the second time around.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. More than the ‘who’ who is or are the perpetrators I think we’re certainly intended to engage with Poirot, who comes across as a fully rounded character unlike most of the others and, indeed, Hastings the narrator (who I found unconvincing).

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  2. Alyson Woodhouse

    Perhaps my brain works in a strange, worrying way, but I was able to correctly guess the sollution to this particular Christie when I read it a couple of years ago. Having said that, I didn’t read them in order, and I think she used a similar trick in one of her later efforts, so I’ve maybe just got a good memory.

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    1. The combination of beard, strychnine and the woman who “doth protest too much” struck me from the off too, Alyson; but Christie successfully misdirected me towards suspecting quite a few others. This was her skill, I think: create enough background noise and it becomes difficult for lesser brains like mine to focus on what’s crucial!

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  3. piotrek

    I could never get into Christie, I remember my grandparents both loved her, but that part of their library went to other family members. I appreciate her, but from afar. I simply love the cups though 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The tea set pieces are my partner’s heirlooms carefully staged! I remember reading a couple of Christie whodunits in the 70s — Nemesis was one of them — and having a ‘so what?’ feeling about them. Carefully contrived plots are temporarily satisfying, like an intricate completed jigsaw puzzle, but are no substitute for novels where you really want to engage with characters and their dilemmas and qualities.

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  4. Fiona

    My reading project for the beginning of 2020 was to read all Christie’s novels again.

    It was an enjoyable exercise, but one that confirmed me in my long-held opinion: Christie was great at plots, but mostly lousy at characters.

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  5. Nice review, Chris. I haven’t read this one, though read a handful of her books years ago on an extended stay with my nan – she had a tall, dark wood bookshelf that held rows of Christie books, all with their 1950s paper dust covers intact.

    Have you read the Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton? He was huge Christie fan growing up and wanted to write an updated version of the country house mystery, a la Christie. It’s a time slip fantasy, mystery, crime novel – quite an original take, very twisty and I’m still not sure I worked out exactly what was going on, even after I finished it! Might take a second read, I suspect. Well written though. Recommended

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    1. No, I haven’t read the Turton, Lynn, though it’s been making a lot of noise among many readers. Maybe I’ll see about borrowing a copy when (if?) the library opens again!

      My mother, like many others of the time, was a Christie fan, though I don’t have any memories of her having shelf loads of titles as your nan did — she subscribed to Reader’s Digest Condensed Books instead, and was disappointed when I turned down her offer to pass them on to me…

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      1. Fiona

        How wise of you to reject them! My in-laws had yards of them. Told my spouse words to the effect of over my dead body.

        I must admit that I prefer the so-called golden age of whodunnits, and my favourite authors are Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey, and Margery Allingham. More recently, I adore Ellis Peters.

        I prefer ingenuity in whodunnits, rather than blood and gore.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I’m late to whodunits, and tend to sample the odd title from the likes of Ellis Peters, le Carré, E F Benson, Edmund Crispin, Simenon, and of course Christie, plus the odd modern Wales-based writer like M R Hall and Jan Newton. Sayers, Marsh and Allingham have so far escaped my attentions though naturally I have heard of all of them!

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  6. Glad you enjoyed it! I re-read it recently and found it a lot of fun to see how Poirot and Hastings started out, with some of the traits they’d keep in later books, but other aspects that quietly disappeared, like Poirot’s tendency to be an action man and Hastings’ ambition to be a detective! Another blogger told me this was rejected by several publishers – must have spent the rest of their careers kicking themselves soundly, I imagine. And quite right, too! 😉

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    1. Extraordinary what titles we consider classics now found it hard to find a publisher, Northanger Abbey springs to mind for example. But yes, it’ll be interesting to see how Poirot and Hastings develop individually as well in their relationship.

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    1. The cups appear as suspicious early in the story, Ola, so aren’t really much of a spoiler here: most editions have a cover with a bottle of poison and a skull and crossbones, so I think you can guess how the murder is accomplished! I’ve drunk from this cup and it’s perfectly *cough* alright…

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  7. buriedinprint

    This is one of only a couple Christie novels I’ve read — I’ve never caught the bug, I’m afraid, although I do understand how remarkable she is and what an impact she’s had on the genre. (Thanks, largely, to P.D. James’ education in her slim volume about detective fiction and her autobiography.) What I do love here, though, is that they included a previous version of that specific chapter – what fun, to see an earlier working of the material!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was certainly an excellent innovation, the drawing room denouement, which has paved the way for many successive cozies right down to, ooh, Death in Paradise! I’m keener to read her Mary Westmacott novels now, though, they seem like they may be rather less ‘engineered’, if you know what I mean.

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    1. Having read both chapters (the original has been transcribed from her almost indecipherable notebooks) I would say the replacement works a lot better — though I say that with hindsight, of course!

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